When Manley went bananas


The Jamaica Gleaner, under the title of “When Manley went bananas—Tracing the roots of Jamaica Welfare to the United Fruit Company,” has published a brief history of the importance of the banana trade in Jamaica and Norman Manley’s role in the creation of the Jamaica Welfare Ltd. Organization for the protection of banana workers. The article, by Martin Henry, traces the history of banana production in Jamaica and speaks of a time that “older Jamaicans will remember” when the industry was dominated by the United Fruit Company (UFC), which “ruled the roost in the heydays of the banana industry” on the island. The UFC, Henry argues, “was a major multinational player in Latin America and the Caribbean, bigger than most national governments in the region.” Henry draws his account from Norman Manley’s unfinished autobiography and describes the formation of the Jamaica Welfare Ltd. thus:

In the 1920s, Jamaica, where the banana industry had started some 50 years earlier, was the largest exporter of bananas in the world, something which is difficult to believe today. “(But) the United Fruit Company and Elders & Fyffes controlled the position in Jamaica,” Manley wrote. “And the small Jamaica grower paid for it. His prices varied with United Fruit Co interests, and there was no guarantee that he could sell at all when his fruit was ready. It was in these circumstances that a few brave men began to believe that it was possible to plan for a cooperative big enough to own their own ships, and strong enough to force the United Fruit Co to bargain with them. Manley was part of a three-man delegation to New York to cement a deal between the JBPA and the UFC over eight days of “hard, tough bargaining” and two days of legal drafting, most of which was done by Manley himself. When it was all over,” the brilliant negotiator wrote in his unfinished autobiography, one morning the hard-nosed president of UFC, Samuel Zemurray, a Russian migrant to the United States, “asked us to stay on and then took my breath away with a proposal which he said derived from his talk with me months before in Jamaica. The proposal was that the United Fruit Co would set aside one cent per stem exported from Jamaica to form a fund to be administered by an organisation to be created by me for the good and welfare of the people of Jamaica, with emphasis on the rural people. This would mean, as things then stood, some 25,000,000 cents or $250,000—nearly £90,000 annually. Thus was Jamaica Welfare Ltd. born in 1937 with Manley himself hand-picked to lead the organisation.

That important period in Jamaica’s history remains in popular culture only through the Jamaican traditional folksong made famous by Harry Belafonte. “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song”) encapsulates the experience of dock workers working the night shift loading bananas ships.

Here is Belafonte, the Jamaican American singer known for his civil rights advocacy and support for humanitarian causes, making fun of himself while he tries to sing the “Banana Boat Song” in 1978 with the Muppets:

You can find Martin Henry’s essay at http://www.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20090506/news/news5.html

3 thoughts on “When Manley went bananas

  1. I’m actually in the middle of reading Vic Reid’s biography of NW Manley, and the description of the various attempts by the banana growers to form a collective sounds very much like what happens in the early part of McKay’s _Banana Bottom_. Thanks for pointing me to the Gleaner article in this post!

  2. You are very welcome. I am intrigued by the refernce to Manley’s unfinished autobiography and wonder whether it is accessible to researchers or whether there are plans for publication.

  3. The article may be referencing the “fragment of an autobiography” included along with NWM’s speeches in _Norman Washington Manley and the New Jamaica_, edited by Rex Nettleford. I don’t have the full text in front of me, but it’s the only published autobiographical writing by NWM that I know of.

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